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Why the Bronx Burned

There’s a popular narrative that blames the blight and decline of the South Bronx in the 1970s on the working-class people who lived there. But a new film shows that it was landlords and the state who were responsible for the famous fires that ravaged the Bronx.

A young girl stands outside in the South Bronx in the 1980s. (Perla de Leon)

Interview by
Zhandarka Kurti

In the postwar era, the South Bronx witnessed a demographic shift as African Americans and Puerto Ricans joined foreign-born Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants. Pushed out by urban renewal and immigration policies, they arrived to the South Bronx on the heels of large-scale transformations including residential segregation spurred by federal housing policies, deindustrialization, and a looming fiscal crisis. Beginning in 1972 entire South Bronx neighborhoods burned down. Everyone seems to know the story by heart: residents and greedy landlords burned down their own buildings for money. In the decade that followed, popular films like Fort Apache: The Bronx reaffirmed what many Americans already felt that they knew about the dystopian crime-filled no-man’s-land. Law-and-order was embraced as the only state solution to the supposedly rampant violence of black and brown South Bronx residents.

Yet for all its history, the Bronx has been a vibrant working-class borough with strong communal ties. So how did the fires transform the South Bronx into a national symbol of urban blight? How did its black and brown residents become scapegoats for the nation’s social and economic crisis? These are the questions that set Vivian Vasquez, a South Bronx native, on a personal journey, linking her family’s experiences to a set of political decisions, that challenges the narrative of why the Bronx burned.

I first met Vivian and her co-director Gretchen in 2017 when they came in to present to a summer youth program ran by Take Back the Bronx (TBBX), a group that is organizing against the rezoning of the South Bronx, a more insidious form of gentrification launched as part of De Blasio’s “affordable housing” program. Groups like TBBX argue that the rezoning of neighborhoods like the one Vivian grew up in will drive up rents for area residents and open the floodgates for further gentrification. In response, activists across the city’s five boroughs have put out an alternative: The People’s Housing Plan. Decade of Fire couldn’t have come at a better time. In the rapidly gentrifying city, the Bronx is the last stand and its residents are fighting back. I recently sat down with co-directors Vivian Vázquez and Gretchen Hildebran to discuss their film and the lessons it offers anti-gentrification activists today.


ZK

What brought you to work together on this documentary?

VVI

Julia Allen and I worked together for a community-based organization, and we had the idea of developing a curriculum about Bronx history to an incoming group of 9th graders. The curriculum never got taught but that question about what our young people know about their history in the Bronx — and what they should know — led us to continue have these conversations. The more we talked, the more we realized that we needed to talk about the fires because that theme kept coming up.

ZK

What is the main theme of the film?

VVI

There are a couple. There were questions that had always been left unanswered about which decisions led to the destruction of the Bronx. The narrative that we were told about why the Bronx was destroyed left us feeling that it was those of us who grew up there that destroyed it. We wanted to tell the people’s history, and we wanted to challenge that narrative. It wasn’t us that destroyed the Bronx; we were the ones that saved it. We were inspired by the stories we heard through interviewing people and doing the research. We found that it was actually government policy that led to the destruction of communities.

GH

It’s about lifting the stigma that people from the Bronx have lived with and understanding that it has parallels with other cities across the country. It is no accident that these are the places that were redlined, where people of color were left to fend for themselves in the 1970s. We wanted to show that the burning of the Bronx wasn’t an accident, and we wanted to place political decisions at the center of what happened.

ZK

For you, Vivian, the film is a personal journey, of your family coming to the South Bronx from Puerto Rico. What was the South Bronx like before the fires?

VVI

At some level, people move to the United States because they can no longer live in their home country. The same happens in Puerto Rico and in the American South. African Americans were being exploited and killed so they needed to leave for the North. Puerto Rican immigration occurred because of US policies like Operation Bootstrap in Puerto Rico. When I grew up in the South Bronx, it was integrated. We spoke to so many people who talk about the South Bronx as diverse and vibrant, where you can ask for sugar from your neighbor. There was the understanding that a new group would come and assimilate into the “American dream,” and that was the expectation. There was an excitement to coming to New York and living in the Bronx with people they have never met before. The lady upstairs was my mother’s best friend, and she was Jewish and also our babysitter. And there was the lady who was Irish on the second floor and also in my building there was an African-American and Cuban family. When I was a little girl, I didn’t see that integration as anything but normal. In our school, during assembly, we sang both “La Borinqueña” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Most kids today don’t know either of these.

ZK

The film challenges the narrative of why the South Bronx burned. Can you tell us more about what the process of shedding light on the structural and institutional forces was like for you both?

VVI

People know it was the landlords that burned the buildings and everyone thought arson, arson, arson. We wanted to make sure that people understood that there were policies that led to the arson becoming okay. The Bronx didn’t have to burn, be neglected, or abandoned; and we shouldn’t be the ones to be blamed for it. When we shared our research with residents, they said to us, “Wow, you are telling the story. Thank you for setting the record straight. We didn’t know about how urban renewal, redlining, and all these policies played out.”

GH

The city had zero enforcement policy for housing codes, lapses in tax payments, or investigation of arson. Thus landlords could allow their buildings to decline and even pay to burn them down without fear of being held accountable. There were many parts of the making of this film that were an education for me as an outsider to this community and to New York City. I got to learn about people’s histories and how they survived this unbelievable experience. One thing that I hope the film does for other people is to help them understand redlining. I had the general idea that it was a bad thing, but it wasn’t something I had ever experienced personally. Discovering what that was like was one of the most profound parts.

VVI

We had a general knowledge of the history. I kind of knew that the firehouses were being closed, but I didn’t know the extent and how it directly impacted my neighborhood, my block, my family, and my community. Tracing back these memories to policy decisions was very painful. It was coming to terms with the trauma we experienced.

ZK

What were the policies that turned the South Bronx from a vibrant, multiracial working-class community into a symbol of twentieth-century urban decay?

GH

The main policy we decided to focus on in the film was redlining which was part of the New Deal. Redlining has been a profound factor in the creation of our cities and we tried to demonstrate that with a series of maps. Government surveyors went into neighborhoods throughout America and drew up these maps which guided insurance companies, mortgage lenders, and all the services that were becoming instrumental in buying any kind of property at this time. We wanted to dive into how redlining is about the hoarding of government resources. Underpinning that was language written into the Federal Housing Act (which also assisted white Americans in becoming homeowners) stating that neighborhoods that are not segregated or not purely white were doomed to fail. This started very early and at a time when the Bronx was very much integrated. What we heard from people was it took a while for the impact of the redlining to be felt in a widespread way. But when it did hit, it happened quickly and in conjunction with white flight. Whites — but also any middle-class person who could afford to move out — left in the 1960s. It was generally a time period of dislocation and the time when a stigma over crime and drugs associated with the neighborhood moved to the forefront.

VVI

I want to add that inherent in these policies and practices were the fears that were ingrained about people of color — that we were not ready to live in cities, that we were dirty, were criminal, irresponsible, uneducated, and didn’t know how to work. I can go on and on. So as Gretchen is talking about these policies, these messages helped to justify redlining and the use of urban renewal to get rid of tenement buildings. Racism played a big role in allowing these policies to take hold. The fires were a result of these policies, and yet the people who live through them are considered to be a bunch of criminals.

ZK

The film argues that the fires could have been stopped. So why weren’t they?

GH

The main policy leading up to the budget crisis that has a lot of resonance with people today is austerity. It was done under the guise of making things more efficient and bringing consultants to make things better. But at the end of the day, they were cutting firehouses in poor neighborhoods. It was about seven years before anyone official in the city, even the Bronx district attorney, acknowledged that a crisis was happening.

VVI

There’s a section in the film where I am frustrated and break down. You can see me almost crying. Nothing I saw in that research helped me answer why people did not save the South Bronx. I didn’t see any compassion for the people of the South Bronx. There was eventually a request from the Bronx DA to the federal government to address the arson. The federal government responds with: ‘Well, we don’t have jurisdiction, there is nothing we can do.”

ZK

It’s so clear when you watch the film that austerity politics carried out by New York City elites fall on the backs of working-class black and brown communities. What was the direct impact of these fires on people’s everyday lives?

VVI

On a macro level, people were displaced. We have research that shows about a quarter of a million people were displaced.

GH

And there was no record-keeping of that.

VVI

People were moving from place to place. You can imagine how disruptive that is to a family or to children or to anyone who wants stability in their lives. We had forty fires day and night. We lost 80 percent of our housing stock. Fires are also scary. People died. This was no way to live. It seemed that the infrastructure of the community was weakened: we had weak schools, hospitals, and social service, and everything around was in a weak state. It wasn’t just the buildings. It was the entire lifeblood of the community that was affected.

ZK

At this time, Puerto Rican and African American youth were blamed for the fires. They are depicted by the media as violent gang leaders destroying their own neighborhood.

VVI

Young people didn’t create these conditions. Young people were behaving irrationally because our environment was irrational. What we want to say in the film is that yes, young people did all kinds of stuff, but who were the forces behind it? Who is creating these conditions? It happened back then, and we see it continuing it today. In the media, it’s the black and brown youth who are depicted as uncontrollable, that need to be put in prison, are not worth educating, and are generally seen as not deserving of health services, enrichment programs, and employment opportunities.

ZK

As an educator, what do you hope young people get out of this film?

VVI

I want young people to question and to understand that back then there were these conditions that were created and led to the fires. As I say in the film, a lot of young people I knew growing up ended up dead, on drugs, and in jail. There were moments I thought I was going to fall apart. Ultimately I want young people to know it wasn’t us and we can fight and imagine what our community can look like. I want to empower youth to fight injustice. Knowing that there are actual policies and actual people behind those decisions, means that we have the agency to fight injustice. But we have to get involved. I hope young people see that because they have to play a role and have a voice.

ZK

Organizing emerges as a powerful antidote to the state abandonment and hopelessness. Today the neighborhood you grew up in Vivian is under the threat of gentrification. What gives you hope about organizing against gentrification today?

VVI

What gives me hope are the young people fighting. We are learning our lessons from what happened in Brooklyn and LES. Now we are a bit ahead of the curve. We want decent houses but we want to be able to afford them. The recent wins in the NY legislature is indicative that there is power that the state has to contend with. The current fight for affordable housing is bringing people together. We are talking across from each other, and we need to continue to do that. Connecting these dots is crucial to organizing for this fight.